The amazing success of indigenous artist Sally Gabori
She has been compared to the revered US painter Mark Rothko, and that’s really not such as stretch
The story of Queensland indigenous artist Sally Gabori is one of the most astonishing in the history of Australian art.
Gabori, who died last year at the age of 91, didn’t start painting until she was 81 and in the decade she was active as an artist she painted thousands of works. She was more than just a freakish phenomenon though. Her vibrant and colourful work was embraced by the public, she received critical acclaim and was quickly collected by major art museums.
Queensland Art Gallery will soon celebrate her life and work with a major exhibition, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori: Dulka Warngiid – Land of All, which opens on May 21.
The curator of indigenous art at the gallery, Bruce McLean, says the show will be a window to Gabori’s world – Mornington and Bentinck islands in the Gulf Of Carpentaria, places foreign to most of us.
“It’s a totally different world up there,” McLean says. “It’s a unique place and a country that Gabori infused into all her works. Her love of country and her memories all flow though her paintings which also convey emotion and mood.”
And they do that with a palette that dazzles, entices and delights an adoring public. Mclean points out that the beauty of Gabori’s paintings is that they work on a number of levels.
For those who want to go deeper they are pointers to a rich cultural heritage that is more complex than one might imagine. On the other hand her paintings can be enjoyed for their immediate appeal as abstract art. She has been compared to the revered US painter Mark Rothko, and that’s really not such a stretch.
The amazing thing is that she lived her life in a remote part of Australia far from the salons of the art world.
Gabori, who died in February 2015, was born at Bentinck Island about 1924 (the exact date of her birth is unclear). Her tribal name, Mirdidingkathi Juwarnda means “dolphin born at Mirdidingki” and she grew up at a time when her people, the Kaiadilt, still lived a traditional life, without many European influences.
Missionaries moved her people to Mornington Island when she was 20 but she always retained a love of her home island, a place which remained the wellspring for her artistic inspiration.
She continued to speak her language and sing the songs that connected her to her home and often used to sing while painting or upon completion of a work.
Her art career began in 2005 when she attended a painting workshop at the art centre on Mornington Island, held by Simon Turner of Brisbane’s Woolloongabba Art Gallery.
Initially, the older women of the community weren’t expected to participate but Turner, having experience with Aboriginal communities, knew that elders – such as the great Emily Kame Kngwarreye – often had much to contribute.
Gabori’s first work showed promise and it soon became apparent that a major new talent had been unearthed.
When Turner showed her work at Woolloongabba Art Gallery the art world was excited.
Philanthropist and avid collector Pat Corrigan was among those who realised Gabori’s talent.
Works from Corrigan’s extensive collection of Gabori’s art (he owns more than 100 of her paintings) are included in the Queensland Art Gallery exhibition along with others from other institutions and private collections.
“It was the vibrant colours that attracted me,” Corrigan says. “I was blown away by her originality. It might sound corny but I think she’s the most amazing artist of our time anywhere in the world. To pick up a brush in her 80s and paint thousands of works ... it’s an amazing story.”
Corrigan commissioned a book on the artist, Gabori – The Corrigan Collection of
Paintings by Sally Gabori, published last year. It’s a good place to start to learn more about her and is full of photos of her country and family as well as paintings.
Gabori was chuffed with her success, says McLean: “She was proud of what she had done. And she knew this exhibition was in the works. It’s just a shame she didn’t live to see it.”
Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art was, appropriately, the first major art museum to discover her. QAGOMA director Chris Saines explains that this was 10 years ago at the Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Awards.
“Few artists have made such an impact from such a short career,” says Saines, who highlights major achievements including a major site-specific work in the Supreme Court in Brisbane and a sweeping mural for the redeveloped international terminal at Brisbane Airport featuring reproductions of Gabori paintings from ceiling to floor along a 750m arrivals concourse.
“A more potent and poetic welcome to Queensland could hardly be imagined,” Saines says.
The Queensland Art Gallery exhibition includes large-scale collaborative works and works on paper created towards the end of Gabori’s life.
McLean says many of her paintings appear abstract but “retain an essence of Kaiadilt Country and at their heart they resonate with universal themes of loss, longing and love”.
Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori: Dulka Warngiid – Land of All, May 21-August 28, Queensland Art Gallery, qagoma.qld.gov.au